Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Lead is a naturally occurring element present in small amounts in the Earth’s crust. It has historically been used in many consumer products including gasoline, paint, plumbing materials, batteries, and cosmetics. This makes lead common all around us, in the air, water, soil, and buildings. Exposure to lead most commonly happens through ingestion or inhalation from lead paint, gas, pipes, or waste from industrial facilities that produce these products.

Lead has been known to be toxic since the 19th century, and it can have adverse effects on most human organs by interfering with the function of enzymes in our cells. In adults, lead exposure can lead to reproductive dysfunction, kidney failure, and cardiovascular problems. However, the most potent and devastating effects of lead are on children because they are more likely to be exposed through play and exploration and because growing bodies absorb more lead. Lead is a neurotoxin, interfering with the growth and development of children’s brains. This can cause hearing and vision loss, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities, which may be irreversible. These effects occur at even low levels of lead exposure, and in extreme cases lead exposure can lead to death in children and adults. Alarmingly, even though the toxic effects of lead are well known, a recent study estimates that 800 million children worldwide are exposed to lead today.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is one of the most famous examples of toxic chemical exposure in recent memory. In 2014 the city changed the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River but did not administer corrosion inhibitors. Lead from old pipes leeched into the drinking water and 100,000 residents, including 12,000 children, were likely exposed. In 2015 scientific studies by two groups established that there were elevated lead levels in Flint residents’ blood. As residents and activists complained about symptoms of lead poisoning such as rashes and hair loss, the city then told them to use bottled water, returned to its previous water sourcing system, and publicly claimed that there was no longer any danger. It has been replacing lead pipes since 2016, but many have yet to be replaced. Nonetheless, it is already clear that the children of Flint have suffered irreparable harm. A 2019 study in which 174 children went through rigorous cognitive exams found that 80% of participants require special education assistance for language or learning disorders, as opposed to 15% of Flint children who required this assistance before 2014. The government’s suggestions for keeping safe have caused their own health problems as well: point-of-use water filters recommended for use in people’s homes have now been linked to bacterial infections like Legionnaire’s Disease in the city.

In August 2020, victims in Flint were awarded a $600 million settlement as restitution. It is important to note that Flint is majority Black and has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, illustrating how exposure to toxic chemicals and inaction from government agencies disproportionately affects Black and poor communities. While lawsuits and government responses can mitigate some of the damage, communities must be kept safe by preventing their exposure to toxins. October is Children’s Health Month, and the water crisis in Flint underscores how children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures. Prioritizing health is essential for allowing future generations to grow and thrive.

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